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10 ways that yoga helps mental health

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

‘If the promise of yoga on mental health was found in a drug, it would be the best selling medication world wide.’


More and more research is showing a strong link between yoga practice and improved mental health:


· Yoga significantly improves the symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue and pain

· Movement practices have been found to be as effective as antidepressants

· Yoga is recommended by all leading trauma/PTSD experts as a key part of treatment


How does yoga work?


Poor mental health is linked to significant changes in the nervous system, and alterations in brain functioning and brain structure. Yoga works by bringing these changes back into balance. There’s many ways that yoga helps the mind but on the 10th of October, on World Mental Health Day, here is my top 10:


1. Nearly all mental health problems are associated with over activation of the ‘fight or flight’, and an under-activation of the calming (rest and digest) part of the nervous system, or an overall dysregulation between the two.


One yoga class shifts a person from fight or flight into rest and digest, bringing about a sense of calm. Repeated yoga practice retrains the system to work in a different way, so that the person begins to live in a calmer and less reactive state.


2. The various breathing techniques of yoga not only retrain the nervous system, but also teach people how to calm themselves in times of stress. These techniques can be used in every day life to help people better manage their mood and cope with life events.


3. Within the body and brain yoga brings about important changes in hormones and neurotransmitters. Yoga reduces cortisol (the main stress hormone) and glutamate (a fight or flight stimulator), and increases GABA (a fear suppressor), and serotonin (the ‘happy hormone’).


4. Yoga changes activity within the brain. It decreases activation of the fear areas, and increases activation of the areas responsible for rational thought and logic. Yoga also improves the communication between the two sides of the brain, helping the person to feel more balanced, in control, and less reactive.


5. Yoga decreases tension. The stretching, twisting and bending movements of yoga help to wring out physical and emotional tension from the body, inducing feelings of relaxation.


6. Yoga incorporates mindfulness techniques which are well proven to increase focus and attention, and decrease rumination and worry.


7. Yoga improves sleep. Since sleep regulates mood, better sleep equates to better mood. Yoga has been shown to improve the time taken to fall asleep, number of awakenings, and total sleep time.


8. Yoga increases a sense of belonging. One of the biggest protectors against illness is social support, but mental illness is often accompanied by feelings of isolation and loneliness. The uniting Om at the beginning of class, breathing and moving in synch with others, and smiling at your neighbour as you both fall out of a pose, all foster a sense of belonging and community without there being any need to talk.


9. Yoga is the pause. Mental illness can be associated with a busy mind and unwanted thoughts. It can feel relentless and exhausting. The right yoga class can help people ‘zone out’ so that thoughts become less intrusive or stop altogether. Yoga gives the busy mind a rest.


10. Yoga increases other positive health behaviours, for example yoga is associated with improved eating habits, reduced smoking, and increased physical activity


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